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The World Trade Organization ruled Monday that Australia’s 89-year ban on imports of New Zealand apples is illegal, and ordered Canberra to comply with international commerce law.

According to an Associated Press report, the WTO in a 548-page verdict rejected Australia’s arguments that the apple restrictions are necessary to keep out pests and diseases.

Still, New Zealand apples are unlikely to appear on Australian markets any time soon, the report says. The WTO can authorize punitive sanctions against countries that continue to break trade rules — but usually only after years of litigation — and Australia can file a number of appeals.

The ban was first imposed in 1921 to prevent the spread to Australian trees of fire blight — a disease that damages apple trees and reduces their ability to produce fruit.

Australia also has turned away imports because of concerns that New Zealand’s apples could carry European fruit canker or apple leaf-curling midge.

But the WTO’s three-member panel found that Australia’s ban wasn’t based on a scientific risk assessment.

The Australian and New Zealand missions to the WTO declined to immediately comment, because the WTO’s decision was released before working hours at their trade ministries.

New Zealand brought the case to the world trade referee in 2007, alleging that 17 Australian requirements for apple imports were illegal.

Although the apple issue is an irritant, the South Pacific neighbors have one of the most open economic relationships of any two countries. They traded merchandise valued at more than USD$12 billion (NZDD$16.6 billion) last year.

According to the Otago Daily Times, the “worst-case” scenario was for exports to Australia to begin in 2012.

Pipfruit NZ chief executive Peter Beaven was quoted in the report saying the Aussies’ appeal would be completed within six months and had to be based on points of law.

“We’re pretty confident the appeal will be unsuccessful. Almost every WTO decision has been appealed and none have been successful,” he said.

The Australian market was worth up to $30 million to New Zealand and the outcome of the appeal could be a late “Christmas present” for this country’s apple growers, he said.

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